Sen. Leno's bill aims to reform drug sentencing


Possessing small amounts of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin for personal use could mean less time in a California jail cell. Right now, the state considers drug possession a felony, but State Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco proposes to give prosecutors the option of charging that crime as a misdemeanor instead, cutting sentences from three years to one.

The San Francisco Democrat feels the current harsh sentences unfairly target the young and communities of color. "The public policy question before us is who benefits from perpetuating a chronic underclass of citizens here in California? The answer clearly is nobody," Leno said. Felony drug charges are still available for prosecutors to use, but having a misdemeanor option could save the state $160 million in court, incarceration, and parole costs. The money would be used to provide more rehab services.

Thirteen states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government already treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Supporters of Leno's bill say drug crimes are not higher in those jurisdictions.

"There's no consequences for being a criminal," Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber said. He is a former parole board member. He thinks drug sentencing reform is a bad idea since rehab services are overwhelmed. "Where do the low-level drug offenders get their money? They rob people. They burgle. They do petty thefts. They do crimes to get their drugs," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, though, says once the felony is on someone's record, it's difficult to move on. "That means that they're unable to find employment, oftentimes unable to get housing. So, when we don't provide folks with every opportunity to become productive members of society, it's not that surprising that many folks turn back to drugs," Kim Horiuchi said.

The Leno proposal does not affect marijuana possession which will remain an infraction.

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